In 1990 (*), on one of his now famous works, Christopher Langton (link) decided to ask an important question. In order for computation to emerge spontaneously and become an important factor in the dynamics of a system, the material substrate must support the primitive functions required for computation: the transmission, storage, and modification of information. He then asked: Under what conditions might we expect physical systems to support such computational primitives?
Naturally, the question is difficult to address directly. Instead, he decided to reformulate the question in the context of a class of formal abstractions of physical systems: cellular automata (CAs). First, he introduce cellular automata and a simple scheme for parametrising (lambda parameter, λ) the space of all possible CA rules. Then he applied this parametrisation scheme to the space of possible one-dimensional CAs in a qualitative survey of the different dynamical regimes existing in CA rule space and their relationship to one another.
By presenting a quantitative picture of these structural relationships, using data from an extensive survey of two-dimensional CAs, he finally review the observed relationships among dynamical regimes, discussing their implications for the more general question raised above. Langton found out that for a 2-state, 1-r neighbourhood, 1D cellular automata the optimal λ value is close to 0.5. For a 2-state, Moore neighbourhood, 2D cellular automata, like Conway’s Life, the λ value is then 0.273.
We then find that by selecting an appropriate parametrisation of the space of CAs, one observes a phase transition between highly ordered and highly disordered dynamics, analogous to the phase transition between the solid and fluid states of matter. Furthermore, Langton observed that CAs exhibiting the most complex behaviour – both qualitatively and quantitatively- are found generically in the vicinity of this phase transition. Most importantly, he observed that CAs in the transition region have the greatest potential for the support of information storage, transmission, and modification, and therefore for the emergence of computation. He concludes:
(…) These observations suggest that there is a fundamental connection between phase transitions and computation, leading to the following hypothesis concerning the emergence of computation in physical systems: Computation may emerge spontaneously and come to dominate the dynamics of physical systems when those systems are at or near a transition between their solid and fluid phases, especially in the vicinity of a second-order or “critical” transition. (…)
Moreover, we observe surprising similarities between the behaviours of computations and systems near phase transitions, finding analogs of computational complexity classes and the halting problem (Turing) within the phenomenology of phase transitions.
Langton, concludes that there is a fundamental connection between computation and phase transitions, especially second-order or “critical” transitions, discussing some of the implications for our understanding of nature if such a connection is borne out.
The full paper (*), Christopher G. Langton. “Computation at the edge of chaos”. Physica D, 42, 1990, is available online, here [PDF].